Douglas County leaders want plan for Lawrence Community Shelter’s nearly $150K request

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Lawrence Community Shelter Board of Directors Treasurer Keith Nowland, left, speaks during a Douglas County Commission work session on May 22, 2019. Looking on at right is Thea Perry, president of the shelter's board of directors.

Douglas County commissioners and staff on Wednesday tasked Lawrence Community Shelter leadership with providing a more structured plan before they consider its request for $148,000 in additional funding this year.

The shelter has faced financial issues in recent years, and in December, its fourth executive director since May 2014 announced her plans to resign, the Journal-World has reported. In addition, the shelter’s interim director, Charles Frager, will soon be resigning and moving out of state, shelter Board of Directors President Thea Perry said in a brief phone interview Wednesday after the commission’s meeting. His last day will be no later than June 14.

Representing the shelter at the commission’s work session were Perry, shelter Board of Directors Treasurer Keith Nowland, and Erika Dvorske, chief operating officer of the Lawrence firm SS&C Solutions Inc. Douglas County and the city of Lawrence each agreed in February to pay SS&C Solutions $15,150 for a study of the shelter’s operations, budget and management.

“I think with an infusion of infrastructure, they (the shelter’s staffers) can be successful in really supporting and propelling clients in a way that allows both the majority to self-resolve, and then supports connection for the others to the critical services that will also help them make progress,” Dvorske said. She later clarified that by infrastructure, she meant “the people infrastructure.”

The requested $148,000 would be in addition to the $115,000 the county has provided the shelter this year, meaning it would more than double its total funding from the county. The shelter is also requesting $252,000 from the city of Lawrence on top of its $200,000 for 2019, according to commission agenda materials.

One issue the shelter faces in its budget is its inefficient building. Jill Jolicoeur, assistant to the county administrator, said the operating costs — just to keep the lights on, water running and such — eat up about 21% of the shelter’s budget. Peers, by comparison, spend about 8.7% of their budgets on the same costs, according to the SS&C Solutions report.

The building, 3655 E. 25th St., wasn’t designed for its current purpose. The Journal-World reported in 2012 that it was a converted warehouse space. Dvorske said her firm’s work hadn’t focused on the potential for a different building because early in the process, she was told that there were no known alternatives.

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Bob Tryanski, Douglas County’s director of behavioral health projects, facing the camera at center, speaks during a Douglas County Commission work session about the Lawrence Community Shelter on May 22, 2019. Also pictured, clockwise from left, are Erika Dvorske, chief operating officer of SS&C Solutions Inc.; Jill Jolicoeur, assistant to the county administrator; and Douglas County Commissioners Nancy Thellman and Michelle Derusseau.

Commissioner Nancy Thellman said she wanted those present at the work session to know how difficult it was to get to that building, which “has managed to shelter people — not excellently, but to shelter hundreds and hundreds of people over these years.” She said the shelter’s building had been a last resort, as other options had failed due to lack of either proper zoning or “the ability to get the community to say yes.”

Commission Chair Michelle Derusseau said she doesn’t want to see money “being wasted on a black hole if there’s something that we can do so that those funds can go where they really are needed.”

Bob Tryanski, the county’s director of behavioral health projects, said that with a clearer understanding of that budget problem, there is an opportunity to ask the community, donors and stakeholders, “Do you want to invest in the building on a continual basis, or do you want to invest in services?”

“If you can invest dollars to help people with the right services and staffing model, you get results,” Tryanski said. “We can’t set you up to continue to not be able to do that.”

Interim County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said that prior to the county formally considering the shelter’s immediate funding request at either its June 5 or June 12 meeting, she and commissioners would like to see a sketch of a long-term revenue strategy and capital plan, as well as refined outcomes and data.

If granted, the $148,000 could come from the county’s fund balance, Plinsky said. However, in the upcoming 2020 budget process, she would need to restore the fund balance to 3%, she said.

“That really sets us in a hole for 2020 before I even begin to think about how we fund the 2020 request,” Plinsky said. The shelter is also seeking an extra $181,000 on top of its planned $115,000 from the county for fiscal year 2020, for a total of $296,000.

The commission does not take formal action during its work sessions.

Dvorske will also present a report at the Lawrence City Commission’s June 4 meeting.

— Editor’s note: This article has been updated from a previous version.

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